Bob Keal, 30, has been writing slow, bittersweet songs as Small Sur since 2005, the year he moved from Los Angeles to Baltimore. In a familiar trajectory, what began as a songwriting project with a rotating cast of sidemen has crystallized over the years into something like a band. Multi-instrumentalist Andy Abelow and drummer Austin Stahl have become crucial players. Keal also credits a “handful of great bass players,” including Jamie Saltsman, who writes and records most of Small Sur’s bass lines, and Paul Kusner, who plays with the group live, with defining Small Sur’s sound.
I have to concur. The band arrangements amount to much more than embellishments of Keal’s songs: they’re the key to those songs’ intensity. At their best, they turn Keal’s soft-spoken, tuneful howl into high drama.
Keal answered a few questions about Small Sur’s sound, and what they’re doing next.
This may seem trivial, but I want to talk about how slow your songs are. It’s a deceptively extreme aesthetic, and a hard one to maintain. Where does it come from?
“Deceptively extreme” is an interesting way to look at it. I think that makes a lot of sense. I fully realize that the music is generally slow and I like it that way. It’s decidedly different than a lot of what I hear on a day-to-day basis, at least in that one aspect. I want the songs to require something of the listener, some sort of participation. Maybe that manifests as an emotional or physical response, maybe it’s just their time. I also like to bury dynamics and changes deep down in a song so people really have to focus to notice them, but I’d like to think that the textures are also able to be felt without actually noticing them, if that makes sense.
If I had to name this music in one word, I’d pick “folk,” but actually it’s difficult to trace a specific folk lineage for it. It doesn’t seem to take its cues from New York folk revival artists, or Appalachian music, or anything else I can think of. If anything, it’s like vintage country, but just the ballads. How did you arrive at this style?
My musical history as a listener is pretty bland, to be honest. Growing up my musical tastes were all over the place, following trends or friends’ tastes more than anything. In college I started listening to more independent music, starting with pop-punk and indie rock and some emo. That all led me to Pedro the Lion. I was intrigued by his music in general, but especially the slower songs, even if I didn’t always like them as much as his pop songs. [Canadian singer-songwriter] Hayden was another musician that drew me in with his relaxed pace.
Around 2003 or 2004 someone gave me a few Mississippi John Hurt recordings and I loved the way that his voice and the guitar intermingled and mimicked each other. With all that in mind, I think I arrived at the music pretty innocently. When I first played with a band we were sort of doing a country-rock thing. I remember not wanting it to be that way, so I started playing everything more slowly and asking decidedly less of the musicians around me in terms of quantity of notes and shifting their focus to nuance and small, intuitive changes throughout a song.
Where do you stand with the next recording project?
We have a finished record and are just getting artwork and other details together before sending it off for duplication. This will be the first time our music has been released on vinyl and I’m really excited about it because I think the medium suits our music well. All of the records I’ve done have been meant to be listened to one sitting, not piecemeal or as singles, etc. I’m sure that is the intent of a majority of musicians, right? Maybe not?
Look for Small Sur’s next full-length, Labor, to be released late 2012 or early 2013.
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